Q: I toss and turn all night and never seem to get enough sleep, but I don’t want to get hooked on sleeping pills. What are the best natural sleep remedies?
—Mary Anne T., Florence, AL
Humans were designed to awaken near dawn and go to sleep soon after dark. The introduction of artificial light took us away from this natural cycle, and we’ve been trying to cope ever since. Ignoring our natural sleep cycle puts the body into stress mode. Getting a “second wind” around 10 p.m. is usually a sign that your stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, have kicked in. The regular burden of these hormones shortens the life of tissues and organs—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Chronic sleep loss leads to higher risk for depression, memory problems, headaches, heart palpitations, infections, blood pressure and blood sugar irregularities, and allergic responses such as eczema.
Shockingly, 30 percent of women in the United States report that they use medication to “improve” their sleep. Of these, nearly one-third rely on over-the-counter drugs, 15 percent use prescription medications, and many take both. Don’t believe the pharmaceutical ads: Drugging yourself does not improve sleep quality.
Healthy sleep takes a commitment. You really do need to allocate eight hours daily for sleep. If you get up at 6:30 a.m., put yourself to bed at 10:30 p.m. Since a pre-sleep routine is helpful, allow time for that as well. Maybe 30 minutes to wash your face, brush your teeth, stretch a little, read—and then lights out!
Beyond that, it’s important to consider possible underlying causes of your sleep issues. They could be hormonal (night sweats); nutritional (insufficient absorption of B vitamins or food irritants in the gut); pharmacological (stimulants); physiological (sleep apnea); and/or psychological (stress). If you choose to work with a natural health-care provider, consider these two goals: First, assess and treat the underlying problem/problems, and second, alleviate the immediate insomnia so that sleep restoration may begin.
To start, ask yourself these questions:
If none of these factors apply, your insomnia may be due to low levels of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep hormone, and/or low levels of serotonin, the brain’s “feel-good” hormone. Taking melatonin, 1–3 mg at bedtime, can help, especially those who have difficulty falling asleep. For some people, taking melatonin around 4 or 5 p.m. works better than at bedtime.
If waking up during the night is a problem, and you always awaken around the same time, acupuncture may help. All of the organs rotate through 2-hour cycles, and waking between 2 and 4 a.m. often signifies “Kidney Qi” distress—which in Western terms means adrenal overdrive. Taking 50–100 mg of 5-HTP at bedtime often helps with wakefulness after the first four hours of sleep.
In addition to the nutrients mentioned above, there are a variety of natural sleep aids that can safely and effectively help you get a good night’s rest, including:
Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private naturopathic practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at dremilykane.com.